After decades of domination by the big publicly-traded holding companies (and Edelman), the public relations agency business is ripe for the kind of disruption that has shaken up adjacent businesses, from advertising to the media itself. In this series of articles, PRovoke Media founder Paul Holmes identifies some of the firms aiming to disrupt the PR market, and talks to some of the individuals spearheading that disruption.

In the second article of this series, we talk with Andy Whitehouse, founder and managing partner of Copperfield, the strategic communications firm that was acquired by Penta in March of last year. Formed by the merger of six independent firms spanning strategy, analytics, research and intelligence, Penta bills itself as a “stakeholder services” firm and last year acquired both Copperfield and Hume Brophy..

Paul Holmes: Tell me a little about your background before you came into your current role.

Andy Whitehouse: I joined Penta as a senior partner in spring 2023, following the acquisition of Copperfield Advisory, a communications firm that I founded with investment from founder Jim McCann. Prior to Copperfield, I was the most senior communications professional at IBM, McKinsey, and Willis Group.

PH: What did you see during that time that convinced you there was an opportunity to build something new and different?

AW: At Penta, around half of our professional fees derive from information services: clients purchasing data and analytics on stakeholders. This is very different from our peers. At Penta we use our data platform to tell clients things that they don’t know about themselves. Coupling that intelligence capability with consulting is unlike anything I saw as an in-house communications leader.   

PH: How will what you are building now be different from the existing market leaders?

AW: Business leaders are right to expect data and analytics in support of marketing and communications strategy. They want foresight into where the public debate is going. The demand for our intelligence and monitoring capabilities tells us that traditional models based on gut instinct and anecdote are no longer enough. 

PH: Tell me a little about Falfurrias, their vision for the communications business, and what makes them the right partner for Penta.

AW: Falfurrias is our capital partner in building Penta. Our job at Penta is to create the vision we share with Falfurrias, of a novel communications firm that blends stakeholder insights with deep professional expertise. We derive huge benefit from their operational guidance and support.

PH: What made the firms you have acquired so far attractive to you? And what will you be looking for in any future acquisitions?

AW: What made our legacy firms attractive is the quality and the ambition of the people. In under a year we combined eight companies—five information services businesses, and three consulting firms—into one global Penta. Clients tell us that it is as if our team has worked together forever. We are really proud of how fast we have been able to bring our 400-person firm together.  

PH: Are there disciplines outside the traditional public relations business that you anticipate joining the Penta family?

AW: That’s really the heart of our story. We are data scientists, analysts, designers, political communicators, consumer insights professionals, pollsters, and marketing communications experts. Our recruiting goals prioritize STEM education just as much as the traditional degree paths to communications. 

PH: What is your strategy for talent retention? Do you expect agency founders to stick around for the long term and how will you incentivize them to do so.

AW: We help our clients attract, recruit and retain top talent, and apply the same principles to Penta. That means living up to our talent value proposition every day. It also means celebrating our alumni as they succeed in their careers beyond Penta. It’s our goal to ensure that everyone at Penta has the career-enriching experience here that they desire.

PH: What is your strategy for integration? Will Penta operate as a family of brands, will you look for opportunities to cross-sell, or do you expect the firms you’re buying to come together under a unified brand at some point?

AW: We operate as a single brand today. In 2023, we completed the integration of our eight businesses. Clients tell us they want a “one firm” model of client service. It feels powerful being able to show the breadth of our analytical and creative capabilities. 

PH: What are the areas of investment that you think are crucial for an agency business to invest in as societal and technological changes shift the future of the business?

AW: First and foremost, it is the data and analytics. The world is a complex place; we are building the tools that help simplify it. For example, we are investing heavily in artificial intelligence, both to capitalize on our data and to turbocharge the productivity of our team. 

PH: Is this a long-term agency-building project, or do you anticipate reaching a certain size and scale and then shifting from buyer to seller?

AW: We are building Penta for the very long-term, and we don’t see client need diminishing. The world is getting more complex, not less so.

Also in this series: “National Champions” Are The Priority For Paritee